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News & Press: Policy Update

TICUA Policy Update: WGU Bill Update, STEP-UP Bill Passes Senate

Friday, March 22, 2019  
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WGU Bill Taken Out of Play

Senator Mike Bell’s legislation to enable Western Governors University to gain access to the HOPE Scholarship programs (SB0441/HB0497) was sent to General Subcommittee during this week’s Senate Education Committee meeting. This means the bill will not be heard in committee during this first session of the 111th General Assembly. The pressure against the bill was too strong for the sponsor to consider moving forward this year.

WGU-Tennessee offers an online competency-based program and has their marketing office domiciled in Franklin Tennessee. Its academic and financial operations, however, are based in Park City, Utah.

Over the past few weeks, TICUA has expressed grave concerns about the bill based on three key issues. First, in 2013 former Governor Bill Haslam put together an incentive package for WGU to locate in Tennessee and it did not include access to Hope Scholarship aid. The package did include, however, $5 million for start-up funds, removal from regulatory oversight by THEC, and access to the TSAA – the state’s need-based student aid program.During testimony concerning the incentive package, WGU representatives indicated they had no intention of seeking access to the Hope Scholarship programs.

Second, an exception for WGU could open the door for other out-of-state headquartered institutions to seek access to HOPE Scholarship aid. The General Assembly has provided HOPE Scholarships exceptions in the past, but these were for nonprofit institutions with their main campus domiciled in Tennessee, not for operations based outside of the state. Some of the regionally accredited institutions that offer online and/or ground programs in Tennessee and who may seek access to Hope Scholarships in the future include University of Phoenix, Troy State University, Strayer University, University of Alabama, and others.

Finally, Hope Scholarship aid for students attending four-year colleges and universities has not been adjusted upward to account for inflation. Most recently, the scholarships for freshmen and sophomores were reduced by $500 per year to accommodate the funding needs of the Tennessee Promise program. It has been TICUA’s priority to restore the funding levels of the first two years of the scholarship before any new programs are introduced, much less allowing an out-of-state institution to gain access to the scholarship aid.

The University of Memphis, Tennessee Technological University, and East Tennessee State University joined TICUA with their opposition to the bill.


STEP-UP Bill Passes Senate

Senator Becky Massey’s bill (SB0516/HB0586), which will allow students receiving the STEP-UP scholarship to apply for student housing, passed the Senate Chamber this week on a vote of 26-4. The House version of the bill was set on a calendar for consideration in the Higher Education Subcommittee, but House sponsor Rep. Rick Staples was unable to attend the subcommittee meeting which caused the bill to be rolled to next week.

The STEP-UP scholarship was created by the Legislature in 2013 to provide financial aid to students with intellectual disabilities who are attending life-skills courses on college campuses.

A Senate amendment to the bill fundamentally changes the way institutions offer campus housing. Currently, campus housing eligibility is determined largely by the program for which the student is enrolled. For example, housing is not typically offered to students in non-degree seeking programs, are enrolled less than three-quarters of the time, is solely enrolled in online programs, and so forth. Under this bill, campuses could not deny housing by classifying the STEP-UP program as a “day” or “commuter” program. Rather, they would be required to process all housing requests made by their participants.

Many of the TICUA campuses offering STEP-UP qualifying programs provide a housing option. There are some campuses, however, that choose to offer the courses in a commuter format which does not include a housing option.

TICUA testified last week that passage of the bill, as amended, could have several unintended consequences. First, it may place a chilling-effect on expansion of current programs and on the creation of new programs. Second, it may cause campuses to make the entrance requirements more stringent thus not serving many students with disabilities who would benefit from the program’s curriculum. This would occur because campuses would need to ensure participants can navigate the residential experience before they were admitted. Third, the move from basing housing eligibility from programmatic to student-centered criteria, may open campuses to litigation. The courts have demonstrated that programmatic determinations are much less subjective and more fair than student-centered ones.

Both public and private campus leaders administering the program have sent a joint letter to members of the House Education Committee asking them to send the bill to summer study so that the housing issue could be more fully explored.



Homeless Student Assistance Bill Passes House Subcommittee

SB763/HB1000sponsored by Senator Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Bill Beck would require higher education institutions to designate a staff member as a homeless-student liaison. Students meeting the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)) definition are considered independent for the purposes of Title IV student aid.

The campus’ designee would provide student aid and housing guidance to students meeting this qualification. The bill requires that homeless-students be given priority for available campus housing during enrollment periods and accommodations between enrollment periods if the campuses provides such services.

The bill has passed the Senate Chamber and on Tuesday it moved out of the House Education Subcommittee and is slated to be heard in the full House Education Committee next Wednesday, March 27, 2019.